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Mar-a-Lago search: Agents took top secret documents, but what those documents contained remains unknown

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 8/13/2022 Ella Lee, Anna Kaufman, Joey Garrison, Josh Meyer, David Jackson, Kevin Johnson and Will Carless, USA TODAY
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A federal judge on Friday unsealed a warrant authorizing the search of former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate when the Justice Department, after conferring with Trump's attorneys, formally asserted the former president did not object to making the search warrant public.

The warrant showed the former president is under investigation for possibly breaking three federal laws: removal or destruction of records, obstructing an investigation, and violating the Espionage Act. 

Federal agents retrieved boxes that included 11 sets of classified documents from Trump's Florida home, according to a property receipt released with the warrant. Some of the items had vague descriptors like binders of photos, a handwritten note, information about the “President of France” and the executive grant of clemency for Trump ally Roger Stone, while about half of the documents were classified.

Mar-a-Lago search warrant shows Trump under espionage investigation © Provided by USA TODAY Mar-a-Lago search warrant shows Trump under espionage investigation

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Friday's news: DOJ search warrant shows Trump being probed in connection with espionage statutes

Latest developments: 

The warrant: The warrant signed by a federal magistrate that authorized FBI agents to search Mar-a-Lago seeks documents, records, contraband, fruits of crime or other items illegally possessed in violation of gathering, transmitting or losing national defense information.

The investigation: Investigators don't necessarily believe Trump is a spy. It is more likely the probe is focused on the careless handling of classified information, making it easier to be accessed by spies, attorneys said. 

The inventory: About half of the documents taken from Mar-a-Lago had confidential, secret or top-secret classifications.

Lawmakers ask intel chief for review of 'damage' to national security

Democratic chairs of two House committees asked Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines to review if former President Donald Trump's actions in storing documents at his residence damaged national security.

The lawmakers said if media reports were true that Trump had documents containing information about nuclear weapons and other highly classified topics, "it is hard to overstate the national security danger that could emanate from the reckless decision to remove and retain this material," wrote House Oversight Chair Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., and House Intelligence Chair Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif. in a letter to Haines on Saturday.

Maloney and Schiff asked Haines to order a damage assessment from intelligence officials as soon as possible. "This issue demands a full review, in addition to the ongoing law enforcement inquiry," they said.

- Jeanine Santucci

Trump lawyer told DOJ classified material had been returned: report

A lawyer for former President Donald Trump signed a statement in June that said all documents marked as classified and boxed up in storage in Mar-a-Lago had been given back – which was disproven after federal agents searched the Florida property Monday, the New York Times reported

Citing anonymous sources, the Times reported that the written declaration was made after a June 3 Mar-a-Lago visit by Jay I. Bratt, the top counterintelligence official in the Justice Department’s national security division.

The signed declaration’s existence, and its implication that Trump or his team wasn’t entirely forthcoming with federal investigators, could help explain why the former president is being investigated for possible violation of a criminal statute related to obstruction, the Times reported. 

-- Ella Lee

Trump calls DOJ probe a ‘hoax,’ but experts have a grimmer assessment

Former President Donald Trump is downplaying what the FBI found in its search Monday of his South Florida residence and members-only club, decrying as “a hoax” media reports that said authorities were looking for documents concerning nuclear weapons and other top-secret topics.

But if the FBI, the Justice Department and an independent federal judge are to be believed, Trump could be in some very serious legal trouble, including what they allege are potential violations of the U.S. Espionage Act.

"The fact that the search was predicated on evidence of crimes committed under the Espionage Act is of enormous importance," said Ryan Goodman, a national security law expert and former special counsel to the Department of Defense.

"It suggests the Justice Department was given no choice but to act," he added.

-- Josh Meyer

Read more here: Trump calls DOJ probe a "hoax." Experts, citing the Espionage Act, have a grimmer assessment

Truth Social reveals final days of Cincinnati attacker

On Tuesday, the account "@rickywshifferjr" posted a slew of items on Truth Social, writing on the social media site founded by former President Donald Trump to "take your weapon to work” and “kill F.B.I. on sight.” 

Just one day before the string of posts, FBI agents had conducted a search of Trump's Florida home at Mar-a-Lago. Less than 48 hours after them, an Ohio man named Ricky Shiffer was dead. 

Shiffer, a 42-year-old from Columbus, on Thursday tried to tried to breach a secure entrance at the FBI's Cincinnati field office, toting a nail gun and an AR-15 rifle, police said. Then he fled, with police in pursuit, and was shot and killed after a standoff. 

Authorities have not publicly confirmed that Shiffer was the holder of the account, which Truth Social disabled without comment after Shiffer was killed. But he apparently spent nine days total on Truth Social – the last nine days of his life.

His full posting history, according to a spreadsheet of those posts provided to USA TODAY, offers extraordinary insight into the mind of a domestic terrorist preparing for a violent clash with federal law enforcement.

-- Will Carless, Ella Lee

Get the full story: Truth Social reveals the final days of the Cincinnati attacker

Contents of top secret documents seized at Mar-a-Lago still unknown

The government says former President Donald Trump stored caches of "secret" and "top secret" documents at his Florida resort, but provided no clear hints of what they might contain.

Instead of details or examples, the search warrant unsealed Friday contained line items referring to the seizure of "miscellaneous secret documents," "miscellaneous top secret documents" and "miscellaneous confidential documents."

"The DOJ seems to be investigating an ex-president for knowingly endangering the safety of the nation by refusing to return documents that could do real damage to national security, even after being told to do so," said Patrick Cotter, a former federal prosecutors.

"It is the stuff of cheap political thrillers of the more fantastical variety – until today," Cotter said.

-- David Jackson, Kevin Johnson

For subscribers: FBI seized top secret documents at Trump's Mar-a-Lago, but gave no clear hints on what they are

Why experts reject Trump's argument that Mar-a-Lago documents were 'declassified'

Former President Donald Trump claimed Friday that any sensitive documents FBI agents took during a search at his Mar-a-Lago property in Palm Beach, Florida, were "all declassified."

But experts said constitutional powers authorizing a president to declassify documents don't apply to records classified as top-secret or higher, as the information contained in them is usually protected by other federal laws designed to make sure it never falls into the wrong hands.

"Even if, in fact, what he represents has taken place, there still can be exceedingly sensitive information that is required by law to be protected from unauthorized disclosure," said J. William Leonard, the former head of the U.S. National Archives’ Information Security Oversight Office.

Leonard said this includes information on nuclear weapons technology, covert operations, spying and military sources and methods and other government secrets.

-- Joey Garrison, Josh Meyer

Read the whole story here: Trump claims Mar-a-Lago documents were 'declassified.' Why experts reject that argument.

What is the Espionage Act?

An old piece of anti-spy legislation is back in the headlines after the FBI searched former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago residence for classified materials they believe he took from the White House.

The Espionage Act of 1917, enacted just after the beginning of World War I, makes it illegal to obtain information, capture photographs or copy descriptions of any information relating to national defense, with the intent for that information to be used against the United States or for the gain of any foreign nation.

It was passed to bolster the war effort and safeguard against spying. Enforced by President Woodrow Wilson's attorney general, the law made it illegal to share any information that could interfere with the war or stand to benefit foreign adversaries. In its modern iteration, the act has been used to prosecute spies and leakers of classified information. 

-- Anna Kaufman

What is the Espionage Act?: What to know, from the Sedition Act amendment to declassified documents.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Mar-a-Lago search: Agents took top secret documents, but what those documents contained remains unknown

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